Category Archives: Thriller
Writer: William Goldman, based on the novel by Stephen King
Cast: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Francis Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall
Plot: Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is a novelist feeling weighed down by the success of a series of bodice-rippers featuring the character Misery Chastain. Celebrating a new work, unrelated to Misery, Paul is driving down a remote mountain road in a snowstorm and winds up crashing his car. A woman named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) finds and rescues him, telling him the phone lines are down and she’s been unable to go for help. She also happens to be a big fan of Misery Chastain. Paul’s legs are severely damaged and he’s unable to walk, but Annie – a nurse – is slowly nursing him back to health. Annie asks if she can read the new book he had in the car with him, to which he graciously agrees. After beginning the book, Annie finds herself uncomfortable with the swearing, and almost spills scalding soup on Paul.
Paul’s agent (Lauren Bacall) has called the local authorities about his disappearance, and the Sheriff (Richard Farnsworth) and his wife (Francis Sternhagen) begin a search. Annie comes in from town with Sheldon’s newly-released Misery’s Child and tells him she spoke to a doctor and his agent, and that an ambulance will be sent for him as soon as the road to the hospital is dug out of the snow. When Annie realizes that Misery dies at the end of the new book, she goes berserk and nearly bashes Paul’s head with a table. Instead, she smashes it against the wall and reveals she lied about calling for help – nobody knows where Paul Sheldon is. She later forces him to burn the only copy of his new novel as a sort of sick penance, then returns with paper and a typewriter, insisting Paul write his “masterpiece”: Misery’s Return. When he requests a different kind of paper – a ruse to make her leave the house – she smashes the box of paper down on his injured legs, but leaves. Alone, Paul explores the house in his wheelchair, finding an unnerving shrine to his work and Annie’s stash of medication. He steals some pills to go along with pills he’s been hiding in his mattress, but is almost caught sneaking around when she returns.
The Sheriff finds Paul’s smashed car, which has been buried under the now-melting snow, and the state police assume he has died, but the Sheriff realizes from the dents on the car door that someone pried him out of the wreck. Back at Annie’s, she forces Paul to start over Misery’s Return, claiming the way he brings her back is a cheat (something she feels particularly angry about, going on a wild tangent about how an old movie serial once cheated her in a similar way). He goes back to work, turning out page after page of Misery’s Return… and getting his hands on a knife. The night before he plans to strike, Annie drugs him and straps him to the bed, revealing she knows he’s been wandering the house and has found his knife. As punishment, she hobbles him, breaking his legs with a sledgehammer. A chance encounter with Annie leads the Sheriff to suspect her, and he comes out to her house; she drugs Paul and dumps him in the cellar. He wakes up and calls for help, and Annie kills the Sheriff. Strangely unaffected, she tells Paul she plans to kill him, then herself, but he manages to delay her by tempting her with the end of Misery’s Return. At the final moment, just before she can read the end of the book, he sets the manuscript on fire and attacks her with the heavy typewriter. The two grapple and, in a bloody standoff, Paul manages to kill her. Eighteen months later, we see him back in New York, with a new novel about to hit. His agent suggests he try a book about his ordeal with Annie, and Paul tries to shrug it off… but he’ll never be rid of her entirely.
Thoughts: This is one of my favorite Stephen King novels and, in fact, is also one of my favorite film adaptations of his work. (To this day I’m not sure if I love the movie because I love the novel or in spite of the fact.) Admittedly, the story hits home for me as a writer. The scene where Annie makes Paul burn his new book (to his way of thinking, the best thing he’s ever written) is more terrifying to me than any legion of slashers, zombies, madmen or monsters you can create. I did find myself screaming at the screen on occasion – “It’s the 1980s, Paul! To hell with superstition! You have the technology to make a copy!”
This is, again, one of those rare instances where the Academy Awards really got it right. Kathy Bates got an Oscar for this movie – to date the only major Oscar a Stephen King adaptation has won, although they’ve been nominated for a few more – and you can tell why from the earliest scenes. She goes from creepy to dangerous slowly, gradually, eventually becoming terrifying in the process. By the time she’s casually sloshing lighter fluid around the bed and insisting Paul burns his book, you’re really starting to fear her. The transformation is remarkable and subtle and really the work of a master thespian, and it’s made even more effective by keeping the core of the character consistent. Even at the very beginning, where she’s gently taking care of him, something about the character just seems off. As that odd “off” feeling slowly takes over her persona, the sort of naïve quality she has at the beginning is never entirely eliminated – no matter how furious she gets, she still speaks in an almost childlike manner, refusing to use profanity and sticking to homespun colloquialisms that you’d expect coming from somebody’s grandmother.
James Caan, meanwhile, plays off Bates perfectly. He comes across as someone who’s a little self-involved, a little narcissistic, and to a degree he can even see his time with Annie as a sort of punishment for that. Even before Annie truly starts to scare him, there’s a level of discomfort he displays that really goes far beyond that of a humble writer who doesn’t know how to deal with a gushing fan. As Annie grows more dangerous, the relationship between the two of them transforms from that of a nurse and patient to a pair of adversaries in a truly lethal chess game. Annie grows to see Paul as hers, as something that belongs to her, and he has to find unexpected wells of ingenuity to get out alive. Perhaps the bravest move Stephen King made in crafting the story, though, is that he never particularly tries to make Paul into a hero. Even by the end, there’s no real undercurrent of nobility to him. Sure, he’s the victim and you sympathize with him (it would be impossible not to sympathize after you see the incredible, impossible angle his foot goes in when she smacks it with that sledgehammer), and you even root for him in those last blood-soaked moments of revenge, but he’s still kind of a jerk.
To a large degree, this is a two-person show (and in fact, in the live action stage version that was produced, only Paul and Annie’s characters are ever seen on-stage). The subplot about the Sheriff’s search for Paul, while included in the book as well as the novel, isn’t really that essential – in fact, the way the Sheriff dies without really affecting the plot reminds me very much of Dick Halloran in The Shining – and it would have been fairly easy to lift the whole thing right out had the screenwriter so desired. But William Goldman is a better writer than that. (If you recognize his name, he’s also responsible for the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, one of my personal favorites, The Princess Bride.) Goldman knew just how to balance the two to prevent Annie from ever going so far that the audience couldn’t take it. In fact, in the original novel, Annie chops Paul’s legs off instead of just breaking them. In his 1995 book Four Screenplays, Goldman explains that he changed that scene because it would have been too much for the audience to take, that they would never be able to forgive Kathy Bates the Actress as opposed to Annie Wilkes the Character. And y’know, I do believe he was right.
The relationship between Paul and Annie echoes Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in a few key ways. Although Paul isn’t related to Annie and has no allegiance to her, he’s stuck in a wheelchair and cut off from the outside world, leaving himself totally dependent on her for his survival for as long as she remains sane enough to not slice him open like a fish and leave his guts in a steaming pile on the floor. King even picks up a little 1,001 Arabian Nights, with Paul playing Scheherazade, using the finale of Misery’s story to extend his own life.
Annie is a great villain, perhaps the best, most fully-realized one Stephen King has created. Although it strikes me that, for all her lunacy, I don’t know that I think Annie was completely crazy. Those old movie serials did cheat an awful lot.
Tomorrow we move forward in the 90s, as the man who changed horror twice before changes it again. It’s 1996, and Wes Craven brings us Scream.
Writer: Peter Benchly & Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel by Benchly
Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton
Plot: On Amity Island, tourists come to spend relaxing summer months. There’s nothing relaxing this year, though. A young woman is drawn underwater and killed by some unseen creature, and police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) finds her mutilated remains a few days later. The coroner labels her death as the result of a shark attack, prompting Brody to order the beaches closed. The town Mayor (Murray Hamilton) overrules him, worried that shutting down the beaches will ruin the summer tourist season, the town’s main source of income for the year. Predictably, there’s another attack – this time a child, and in the middle of a busy afternoon on the water. The child’s parents offer a $3000 reward for the shark, and the town goes wild. As a debate rages about closing the beaches, a professional shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) offers to kill the beast, but will only do so for $10,000.
Brody calls in a marine biologist named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to help, even as would-be hunters from all around converge on the island to try to find the shark. Hooper can tell from examining the first victim that not only was it most definitely a shark, but the one that’s much bigger than any ordinary shark. The mayor still refuses to close the beaches on the Fourth of July, and on the big day the beaches are more crowded than ever. Brody and Hooper assemble a small army to patrol the waters, but the beast strikes again. The Mayor finally agrees to hire Quint to kill it, and Brody and Hooper join the old salt on the water. As the men share a drink, the creature strikes the boat, cracking the hull. The shark starts to pull the boat out to sea, flooding it in the process. Quint heads for the shallow water, hoping to suffocate the beast, but he burns out the boat’s flooded engine and it dies. Hooper enters a shark cage and gets into the water, hoping to shoot the shark in the mouth with a poisoned harpoon, but fails. The shark breaks the cage apart, coming after Hooper before surfacing and going for the boat. As the ship begins to sink under its weight, Quint is eaten. Brody manages to cram Hooper’s space scuba tank into the monster’s mouth, then shoots the tank, causing an explosion that kills the beast. With the shark dead, Hooper surfaces and the survivors begin to piece together a crude raft to paddle back to shore.
Thoughts: Some people will argue that this isn’t a horror film. I say they should tell that to anyone who was afraid to go to the beach in 1975. Although the film is only rated PG, this in the years before there was a PG-13, Spielberg managed to get in some pretty gruesome imagery, such as when the shark’s first victim is found. You don’t really see how mutilated her body actually is, because what’s left of it is swarming with crabs. Other films would use flies or maggots, but somehow this is just as disturbing, if not more. Spielberg also gives us a nice chill using the “less is more” philosophy. The truth is, we see very little of the shark because the mechanical beast built for the movie really wasn’t all that convincing. But because Spielberg had a crappy shark-bot, he avoids actually letting you see it for as long as possible, scaring you way more than he could have if he’d actually shown you a convincing shark. Like Hitchcock in Psycho, Spielberg avoids showing you the evil and allows your brain to fill in the blanks.
Atmosphere, of course, is all-important in these movies, and Spielberg achieves that perfectly with the help of his frequent collaborator, John Williams. Williams has scored (I believe) all but one of Spielberg’s directorial efforts, and he’s turned out some of the most memorable movie music of all time, starting here. The Jaws theme is still emblematic of fear, and the rest of the score lets you feel the danger all around you.
The film works on the level of the “townies versus the outsider” mindset as well. Brody is the outsider – he’s been sheriff and lived on the island for less than a year. When he wants to shut down the beach, not only does the mayor strongarm him out of it, but he gets the coroner to change his diagnosis from “shark attack” to “boating accident.” I’m no doctor, but I can’t imagine that any competent one couldn’t tell the difference between a body that’s been hacked up by a propeller and one that’s been chewed, if for no other reason than the pattern of damage to the bone would be different.
In some ways, you almost watch two different movies when you watch Jaws. For the first 70 minutes or so, you’re in the town, experiencing the fear of the townies as the truth about the shark becomes evident. The last 50 minutes is all about the three men at sea, hunting the creature, and taking on a somewhat different tone. There’s still fear, but it’s more immediate. In the first half of the movie, as long as you’re on the land you know you’re safe. Once they set out to sea, the danger is most definitely all around. It gets even worse in the climactic scene, when the engine kills and our heroes are stranded with no means of escape. There’s something terrifying about that, and that’s what makes this movie work so damn well. I don’t even care if the Mythbusters proved that the exploding scuba tank wouldn’t really work, that doesn’t make the finale of this movie any less exciting.
And let’s be fair here – this is one of the most eminently quotable scary movies of all time. Little quips like Brody’s “That’s some bad hat, Harry” or Hooper’s “They’re all gonna die” have pervaded the common lexicon. Quint’s speech about killing the beast or the injury-comparing scene have been quoted, copied, and parodied so often that younger people familiar with the tropes may not even be aware of where they originated. And who can forget, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”?
Jaws changed not only horror movies, but the movie business itself. It was the first film to use “wide release” as part of its campaign, opening everywhere instead of rolling out in a few cities at a time, which is now the common practice. It was also a gargantuan success financially, inventing the blockbuster motion picture and starting the practice of films distributing their major releases during the summer months. It was the first film to advertise heavily on television as well. Pretty much everything standard about the film industry today is true because of Jaws.
More specifically in terms of horror, the film spawned the inevitable rash of imitators: Piranha to Deep Blue Sea to this summer’s Shark Night. On land, we’ve had animal horror films like Anaconda and Lake Placid, and more and more of these imitators are drifting away from any real attempt to scare the audience in favor of going for shock and laughter. Cinematically, Jaws has two thriving descendants today: the way you see any movie, regardless of genre, and the made-for-TV monster goofs SyFy shows on Saturday nights.
In the mid-70s, a name that would become synonymous with fear first made its mark, and tomorrow we’ll look at the first movie made from his first published novel: Stephen King’s Carrie.
Writer: Wes Craven
Cast: Sandra Cassel, Lucy Grantham, David A. Hess, Fred Lincoln, Jeramie Rain, Marc Sheffler, Gaylord St. James, Cynthia Carr
Plot: Celebrating her 17th birthday, Mari (Sandra Cassel) and her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) head out to attend a concert, despite the concern of her parents (Gaylord St. James and Cynthia Carr). On the radio, they hear about the prison escape of a rapist and serial killer named Krug (David A. Hess), who has joined up with his son Junior (Marc Sheffler), a psychopath named Sadie (Jeramie Rain) and a child molester and killer called “Weasel” (Fred Lincoln). After the concert, the girls meet Junior, who they attempt to buy marijuana from. Junior leads them into the clutches of the rest of the gang.
The next morning, the gang stuffs the girls into the trunk of a car to take them to their hideout in the woods. On the way, their car happens to break down in front of Mari’s house. As the police try to convince Mari’s parents that kids sometimes need to just “let off a little steam” and that she’ll come home soon, the gang marches the girls out into the woods. Phyllis makes a run for it, instructing Mari to run in the opposite direction, but she’s left with Junior. She tries to befriend him, even giving him the peace medallion her parents gave her before the concert. The gang finally recaptures Phyllis, killing her in a particularly grotesque fashion.
With Phyllis dead, Krug brutally takes his aggression out on Mari. The gang washes up and changes out of their bloody clothes, while Mari’s corpse drifts away. Pretending to be salesmen whose car broke down, they return to Mari’s parents’ home and ask to spend the night. Estelle, Mari’s mother, realizes they’re lying when she sees Junior wearing Mari’s peace medallion. She listens in as the gang talks, then finds their bloody clothes. She and her husband rush into the woods where they find Mari’s body, then come back for bloody revenge.
Thoughts: Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham – both of whom would go on to father far more memorable American boogeymen – kick things off by immediately embracing the more permissive 70s in this film. Nudity, language, gore – this film absolutely catapults over just about everything we’ve looked at before. In fact, the uncut version of the film was denied an 18 certificate in the United Kingdom until 2002. The exploitation films of the 70s had arrived.
This is where that image of Splatter-Film-as-Morality-Tale really starts to kick in. Why are the girls in town in the first place? They wanted to see a concert by a band that includes the mutilation of animals in their act. Why did they get caught by the criminals? They wanted to buy drugs. It’s debatable whether or not the filmmakers were actually attempting to make a point of some sort, but no doubt it was at least a little easier to convince the censors to accept such a harsh film by convincing them that there was a moral to the story.
Craven worked hard to juxtapose the horror of the story with sweeter scenes and jovial tones. The scenes of Mari’s parents setting up the party could have come from any sitcom of the era, while the music played as the gang transports the girls to their hideout sounds like it belongs in a slapstick comedy, followed by scenes of a babbling brook that belongs in a nature film. All of this just makes what’s really going on all the more horrible by comparison. Then the singing starts… the jolly, cheerful music launches into verses about the gang rambling around, having fun, trying to leave the state, and planning to leave the girls for dead. At this point in the film, the music is the most horrible part. The cops, for the most part, are played for laughs – incompetent, ineffective, and an object of shame. They neglect to investigate a broken down and abandoned car outside of Mari’s home, then hear a description of Krug’s car. When they come back, their own car breaks down, they’re humiliated by a mob in a truck, and even get made fools by a woman carting a truckload of chickens. Trouble is, their scenes are far more pathetic than funny… which may have been the intent, true, but that doesn’t make it any better.
Even some of the harsher scenes aren’t as effective as they could be, and that comes down to production issues – when Mari’s parents discover her body, she’s clearly moving of her own accord, even though she’s supposed to be dead. As Mari’s father begins to set booby traps for the killers, it doesn’t scare so much as remind me of Home Alone. Her mother’s seduction of Weasel smacks of a sex farce, right up until she strikes. The revenge part of the film, the last 15 minutes or so, delivers a little satisfaction, but it’s come at a hard price, and it’s undermined entirely by the return of the goofy musical number in the end credits. It’s hard to look at this movie and believe this was made by the same director who would so effectively blend horror and comedy in Scream over 20 years later. Clearly, in the interim, he learned the error of his ways.
It’s a graphic film in terms of sexual content, but there’s nothing titillating about those scenes – it’s all presented as terror. The girls are scared for their lives, forced into horrible situations while the gang watches and the audience cringes. Phyllis’s murder scene is particularly horrible, as she’s stabbed over and over until the lunatic Sadie actually gets to start pulling her organs out of her body. The zombies in Night of the Living Dead weren’t this gore-hungry, and for the first time, the color makes the blood more shocking than it would have been in black and white.
The film also uses the time-honored technique of pretending it’s based on a true story to shock the audiences. I don’t know how effective this was in 1972 – today I think most sophisticated filmgoers have become inured against such techniques. Even taking horror as a morality play, even playing into the collective fears of parents and teenagers of the early 70s, the movie is trying terribly hard to shock and horrify. The movie helped to make Wes Craven’s name, but it would be later films that made him a name worth remembering. We’ll see him again before this project is over. But this is the first one of his films – and the first film in this project – that I really didn’t enjoy watching at all.
Tomorrow we’ll more on to something I’m more familiar with and have a bit more respect for – The Exorcist.
Writer: Robert Carrington, Jane-Howard Carrington, from the play by Frederick Knott
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Samantha Jones, Efram Zimbalist Jr., Jack Weston, Julie Herrod
Plot: Lisa (Samantha Jones) smuggles a doll filled with heroin into New York City, but hands off the doll to a man she met on the plane, Sam (Efram Zimbalist, Jr.), when she suspects she’s being followed. Sam comes home to his blind wife, Susy (Audrey Hepburn), and the two of them somehow misplace the doll, unaware of its contents. Lisa’s two partners, Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston) are met at Susy and Sam’s apartment by the man who intercepted Lisa at the airport, Harry Roat (Alan Arkin). Roat offers them a chance to help him find the doll, replacing Lisa, who he has killed for trying to “go into business” by herself. Susy arrives home, sensing the presence of people in her apartment but believing the crooks to be her neighbor’s daughter, Gloria (Julie Herrod), playing pranks on her because she has a crush on Sam. She leaves, and the men go about the business of disposing of Lisa’s body.
The next day, after Sam leaves for a business trip, Talman enters the apartment, posing as an old friend of Sam’s. Carlino and Roat get in on the con game, attempting to convince Susy that Sam has been unfaithful to her, and that his lover brought the doll to their home. Susy and Tallman search the apartment for the doll, Susy believing that if the police find it they’ll use it as evidence to charge Sam with murder. Later, Gloria appears with the doll, which she stole earlier. Gloria’s observations feed Susy’s suspicions, and they hide both the doll and Gloria when Carlino returns. Susy sends the crooks on a wild goose chase for the doll, and alone in the apartment, realizes they have cut the phone line and left her stranded, so she destroys all the light bulbs in the house, planning a final offensive. As Talman returns for the doll, Roat runs down Carlino with his car to get him out of the way, then returns and kills Talman, leaving him alone in the house with Susy. The final showdown between Susy and Roat, of course, takes place in the dark.
Thoughts: Audrey Hepburn was not only one of the most beautiful women God ever placed on this Earth, but also one of the most talented actresses. Her portrayal of blind Susy Hendrix is absolutely convincing, from the look in her eyes to the way she moves about without actually looking at what she’s doing. How many actors could pull that off so consistently without relying on the cheat of dark sunglasses to hide their eye movements?
I’ve done plenty of college and community theater, and it’s pretty easy to see this movie’s pedigree as an adaptation of a stage play. The plot is somewhat complicated, but is still mostly contained in the Hendrix apartment. Any scenes that take place beyond the apartment give only fleeting bits of information, things that were probably kept in the apartment itself when the story was told on stage. (With the possible exception of Carlino’s death scene – and even that could have easily been explained. I doubt the stage production includes someone getting run over by a car.) The rhythm of the dialogue, the expository nature of it, also feels much more like a stage play than a screenplay. There’s even a great moment where Gloria, acting as Susy’s secret weapon, quips that she wishes something like this would happen every day. In the context of the film, it’s kind of a ridiculous thing to say, but on stage I can see it helping the audience laugh and relieve a hint of tension just at the right moment.
That said, the writing really is magnificent. Frederick Knott’s original story and the screenplay by the Carringtons both paint Susy as a remarkable, resourceful woman. The criminals think her blindness will make her an easy mark, but she turns it around on them, first using her other senses to poke holes in their con game, and then turning it into a weapon in the brilliant climax.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t really a “scary” movie, not like the ghost and monster films on this list, not even like the serial killer shocker Psycho. But it’s undeniably thrilling. Part of it is Hepburn herself – she’s so universally charming and beloved that you can’t imagine anybody wanting to harm her. Part of it is the character – Susy is someone with real courage and intelligence, the sort of person you just want to see achieve a victory over the dark forces are plaguing her. The cool, calm way she faces Talman after the masquerade is exposed is completely gripping, the sort of thing that makes theatre audiences cheer with excitement. In the end, I only wish I could have seen this movie in the theaters when it first came out, when the managers shut off even the dimmest lights, bringing the audience into total blackness just when the lights go out for the bad guys.
The final scenes of this film are legendary. Susy kills the lights, then douses Roat in his own gasoline so he doesn’t dark strike a match. Plunging the screen (and theater) into darkness, Susy keeps him tapping her cane so she knows where he is, while at the same time holding him off with his own matches, the only light source. Roat gets the upper hand again when he opens the refrigerator door, but again, Susy’s blindness becomes a weapon. The musical doll tell her exactly where he is, the noisy, plastic gloves he’s wearing alert her to the fact that his hands are not currently holding a weapon. And when he drags her off to the bedroom, where again, the light is gone, it’s Susy who gets the upper hand. The finale does pull out what has since become a horror cliché – the presumed-dead villain who comes back in the last seconds – but in this early stage it’s still thrilling, and just this once, it leads to a spectacular finale.
Tomorrow it’s time to get supernatural again, with the godfather of modern zombie movies: Night of the Living Dead!
Plot: Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) was once the toast of vaudeville, a child star whose singing and dancing made her famous, while the sales of her lookalike doll made her father wealthy. As an adult, Jane’s star fell and her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) became one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actresses. Now as old women, the sisters share a house where Jane drinks heavily amidst the memories of her youth and Blanche – confined to a wheelchair following an accident for which Jane is blamed – is experiencing a minor renaissance as her old films find a new audience on television. The relationship between the two sisters is strained to begin with, but grows worse as the mentally unstable Jane begins to torment her sister, taking the telephone from her bedroom and scaring her to the point that Blanche refuses to eat anything Jane brings her, and begins to starve. Jane attempts to restart her career, hiring a piano player (Victor Buono) to accompany her.
Their maid Elvira (Maidie Norman) discovers Blanche in captivity, and Jane murders her. When the piano player stumbles upon the captive Blanche, he manages to flee, and Jane takes her sister to one of the few places she was happy – the beach. There, Blanche reveals to Jane that she was never responsible for the car accident. It was Blanche, trying to run over her cruel, drunken sister, who caused the accident that trapped her in a wheelchair. Jane, stunned at the knowledge that they “could have been friends,” fetches her sister an ice cream cone. When the police stop her on the way back to her sister, a crowd forms, and Jane does what she always did for the crowds… she begins to dance.
Thoughts: This is another entry into that whole “psychological terror” subgenre, the type of film that relies far more on the madness of your villain and the suspense developed by the director to scare you, instead of throwing blood at the screen. In fact, of the two or three genuinely violent acts in this film, I don’t think any of them include so much as a drop of blood. But the film is no less effective for that.
In many ways, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is almost prophetic. How many times have we heard tales of former child stars who were unable to cope with the real world when their fame vanished? How many of them have turned to lives of crime or drugs? How many died so much earlier than they should have as the result of an insane lifestyle they couldn’t maintain into adulthood? I have no idea if such a thing was prevalent in 1960, when the novel was written, but looking at this film today makes it feel almost as though it could be ripped from the headlines. As a rule, I’m against remaking movies that were this good in the first place (although ABC television attempted to do so in the early 90s), but if someone were to transplant this story into the modern day, I think it would hold up just as well.
Much of Jane’s cruelty is verbal. She shouts at her sister, mistreats her, and generally tries to impress upon her that Blanche couldn’t possibly live without her, which the audience knows isn’t true. Blanche has already made plans to sell their house, put Jane into an institution, and hire Elvira to care for her full time. The story carefully upgrades Jane’s madness, beginning with her angry words, then moving up to the memorable scene where she puts Blanche’s own pet parakeet on her dinner plate, then later moving on to a dead rat. That’s when the real violence begins, with Jane serving up a savage beating to her sister when she catches Blanche on the phone to her doctor, trying to summon help, and even further to Elvira’s death. There’s a steady escalation for Jane’s madness that makes it feel very authentic.
For a moment, I was a bit irritated at the end of the movie, which leaves the audience wondering whether or not Blanche survives. As I thought about it more, though, I realize the brilliance in it. Jane is already dangerously unhinged. The question is, what will be worse for her – if Blanche lives, or if Blanche dies? I’m honestly not really sure, and therefore, leaving the question hanging is a clever way to cap the tale.
Like usual, with psychological thrillers, it’s the performances of the actors that make or break the film. Bette Davis received an Oscar for her portrayal of Baby Jane Hudson, and it was well deserved. The way she ricochets from anger to insanity, from a bitter old woman to a scared little girl, is a really masterful work. Crawford, famously, was very bitter over the fact that Davis was nominated and she wasn’t. And in truth, I think she was robbed. Blanche’s character doesn’t allow for the wild array of emotion and terror that Jane does, but Crawford was just as effective at portraying a kind woman who is living a life of eternal penance for her one moment of cruelty. Victor Buono, as the piano player, is a sort of charming cad. His British accent is terrible, frankly, but he really sells the part, as he cringes through Davis’s performance of her childhood signature number “Writing a Letter to Daddy,” then turns right around and pretends he thought it was wonderful.
Some of the influence of this film has been lost – there was a brief glut of films where the villain was an old woman, but that’s mostly dried up over time. (Let’s face it, in Hollywood of the21st century the villains have to be just as sexy – if not more – than the heroes.) This movie isn’t watched or talked about as much as the likes of Psycho these days, but I think it’s right up there as one of the greats in this particular subset of terror.
Tomorrow we’re getting back to the supernatural with perhaps the greatest haunted house movie ever made, the appropriately-named The Haunting.
Plot: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer to help her boyfriend (John Gavin) pay off his debts. As she’s running to him, she stops overnight at a secluded hotel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), whose elderly mother lives with him in the adjacent house. When Leigh vanishes (following perhaps the most memorable death sequence in thriller history), her sister (Vera Miles) and boyfriend begin to seek her out, following the trail back to the hotel where she met her fate. A thrilling final confrontation reveals the true depths of Norman Bates’ insanity, jolting the viewers with shock after shock that still resonates 50 years later.
Thoughts: Truly, is there any thriller more classic, more iconic, more memorable than Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? The movie launched a whole new subgenre of terror, making the psychology of a killer a vital element to the story. (True, Peeping Tom did the same thing, but far more people remember Psycho.)
Let’s get the necessary stuff out of the way first, though. The film was amazing precisely because it broke so many off the conventions of the day. The film begins with following Janet Leigh as she steals the money and takes off. We watch her go through a red herring sequence where a police officer grows suspicious of her and watches her trade in her car (it adds nothing to the plot, but substantially increases the viewer’s false presumption that Leigh is the film’s protagonist and, therefore, going to be with us for a while). We don’t meet Norman Bates until about a half-hour into the film, and then – assuming you’re one of the three people left on the planet unfamiliar with this sequence – we’re shocked when “Mother” murders Leigh with a full hour remaining. How could this be? She’s the main character, she’s the one we’ve been following! Where will the movie go now?
The truth is that the story isn’t really hers at all, but that false assumption is incredibly effective at distracting us from the true star – Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Norman, as we learn, is the classic victim-turned-victimizer, repressed by an overbearing mother whom he later killed when he felt she was leaving him behind for her new lover. Afterwards, Bates develops a dissociative identity disorder, with “Mother” taking up residence in his head and murdering any woman he feels an attraction to, leading up to the climax of the film, where “Mother” takes over entirely.
Speaking – as I am wont to do – of the influence in both directions, Mother really strikes me as being a construct straight out of William Faulkner. Bates poisons his mother and her lover, then keeps Mother’s corpse with him in the house, carrying her from room to room, speaking to her as if she was alive. I’d be hard-pressed to believe that Robert Bloch wasn’t inspired here by Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” a short story where (in a twist ending — so, y’know, spoiler warning) we learn that the main character poisoned her lover years ago. He was planning to leave her, so she dosed him with rat poison and kept his corpse in her house – and bed – for the rest of her very long life. Something about that idea of living with a corpse, of sleeping next to the dead, is unfailingly creepy. It’s one of the short stories I most enjoy teaching to my 11th grade students every year, just because of the reaction when they get to the end. I wonder how these 16-year-olds would react to seeing Psycho. But more on that later.
Aside from just being a great story and screenplay, Hitchcock’s direction and Perkins’s performance combine to make this a movie that truly deserves the label “masterpiece.” Nearly every frame of the film is a work of art, expertly combining shadow and shape to create an all-pervasive feeling of terror. The 1998 shot-for-shot remake of the film was an abomination in many, many ways, but most notably because you simply can’t create the mood Hitchcock conjured up in a color film. This is a movie that needs to be in black and white to really work. The death scene in particular just isn’t as scary in color. Leigh steps into the shower, blissfully unaware of the figure in the long dress and wig creeping up on the translucent shower curtain. We see the knife raised and brought down, over and over again. The dripping blood (probably chocolate syrup or something of the sort) strikes the pure white tile of the shower and your brain fills in the rest of the blanks as it all swirls down the drain. Sure, we live in a world where the likes of the Saw movies do their level best to be as graphic as possible with the deaths of the characters, but Psycho proves you don’t need to do that to scare the hell out of people.
Janet Leigh – rightly – was given an Academy Award nomination for the film, but I can’t help but feel Perkins was robbed. As good as everything else in the film was, none of it would have worked if his Norman Bates wasn’t so remarkable. When we first meet the character, he’s very kind, polite, handsome, and instantly likable. In other films, he’d be the best friend the leads confide in during their darkest moments. But as the movie progresses, as we learn more about his dysfunctional relationship with Mother, our perception of him begins to change. He becomes an object of pity. With his tall, almost preternaturally slender frame, he somehow looks younger than he really is, almost childlike despite how he rises above Marion. The scene immediately following Janet Leigh’s murder really sticks out. Norman (who the unspoiled viewer doesn’t yet know is the killer) stands in the doorway to the bathroom, mop and bucket in his hand, to clean up the mess Mother made this time. His shoulders slump and we realize the jacket he’s wearing is far too big for his spindly body, making him look like a little boy trying on Daddy’s clothes in the hopes of looking like a grown-up. His discomfort and slip ups when speaking to a private investigator (Martin Balsam) are spot-on perfect, with the sense of unease slowly spreading across his face throughout the scene, leading into a pronounced stutter as his ball of lies becomes too large for him to control.
And then there’s the final shot of the character, once he’s been captured and institutionalized, with Mother’s voice doing the voiceover. The madness hardwired into his brain, projected through the speakers of a movie theater, would be creepy enough, but then Perkins looks up directly at the camera. This is a man that, an hour earlier, any person in the theater would have wanted for his best friend. But now the shape of his smile and the look of madness in his eyes sends an electric jolt of fear straight into the viewer’s brain. He’s clearly mad, clearly an abomination… and then the really chilling thought manages to creep in. If somebody as nice and kind as Norman Bates could be a mask for something so horrible, is there anybody we can really trust? Hitchcock finishes icing the cake as the scene fades and he quickly – almost imperceptibly – superimposes the image of Mother’s skull over Norman’s face. It’s so fast many in the audience probably don’t even consciously notice it, but they know something just happened to scare them even more.
There are only two things that really keep me from considering this a perfect movie experience – one of which is a fault of the film, the other a symptom of its success. The movie ends, after Bates’ capture, with an unforgivably long sequence in which his psychiatrist gets into a highly technical and totally unnecessary explanation of Bates’ psychosis. Any reasonably intelligent moviegoer has already figured out that Bates was insane and killed his mother, the first of his many victims. Giving a clinical explanation for it somehow makes it a little less scary. The few details this scene adds that we couldn’t have figured out – such as the fact that Bates killed at least two other girls between the death of his mother and that of Marion Crane – aren’t needed for us to appreciate the depths of his depravity.
The other problem is that the film is now so well known, so influential, that much of the shock has gone. Even someone who has never seen the movie likely already knows, before they even turn it on, that Norman Bates is the killer and that Mother is dead, a mummified corpse he keeps with him out of a twisted sense of love. In this sense, I almost envy my 11th graders. For many of these kids, 15- and 16-year-olds, any movie made before the turn of the century is practically ancient history, and not on their radar at all. They’ll probably have heard of Psycho, but not really know anything about it. If their apathy allows them to watch this movie for the first time with a blank slate… oh, for the first time, I envy them.
Moving right along, tomorrow we’ll tackle one of the cinema’s most chilling cases of sibling rivalry: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Plot: Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a part-time photographer, making ends meet by taking lurid photographs of women in lewd vignettes, while pursuing his true aspiration of being a filmmaker. But his filmmaking is part of a darker thirst – Lewis is stalking the streets, luring women home and filming as he murders them. As Mark befriends a neighbor, he reveals to her how his own father used to photograph him in moments of discomfort, terror, or fear, even including the boy standing by his own mother’s deathbed. Despite this, Helen (Anna Massey) asks him to take photographs to illustrate a children’s book she has written, to which he enthusiastically agrees.
As Mark comes under the suspicions of the police investigating the killings, Helen convinces him to go out with her, but makes him leave behind his omnipresent camera. Helen’s blind mother (Maxine Audley) becomes uncomfortable with Helen and Mark’s relationship, and confronts Mark in his darkroom. Mark is upset that his most recent film didn’t come out the way he wanted, and almost reenacts the murder with Helen’s mother, but barely stops himself. She demands he stay away from Helen until his “unhealthy” fixation with photography is done away with, threatening to move away. He kills once more, this time knowing that the police are watching him, and rushes home, where Helen has found his films. He tells her how he attached a mirror to his camera, forcing his victims to watch their own terrified faces at the moments of their death. As the police arrive to take him away, Mark runs through a long-prepared gauntlet of cameras to the completion of his film – his own suicide.
Thoughts: This is one of those films that, upon its release, was deemed so controversial that the filmmaker’s career was effectively ruined. Its portrayal of raw sexuality was pretty risqué for the time, although there’s nothing so provocative in the final cut of the film that you couldn’t show it on basic cable today. (Well… at certain times of the day, at least.) There’s a brief glimpse of a bare breast on Mark’s last victim before the screen fades to black (something removed from many cuts of the film), but most of the gore takes place off-camera. Even Mark’s self-inflicted fatal wound to the neck doesn’t really look like that big a deal. As he falls backwards, clutching the wound, you could easily think he just nicked himself shaving.
Although the film is called the “first slasher movie” by many, it’s markedly different from the way we picture the genre today. Later, better-known slasher films are all about the psychology of terror: Halloween and Friday the 13th are all about the fear the audience feels. Even in Halloween, when we see the attacks through the eyes of Michael Myers himself, we’re supposed to feel the terror of the victim. Not so with Peeping Tom – this movie is all about the psychology of the killer. First of all, there’s never any question of the murderer’s identity. We know from the very beginning that Mark Lewis is a killer, and even though the police and other characters in the film are trying to solve a mystery, for the audience, there is none. So rather than question who is murdering young women, we are allowed instead to focus our curiosity on why he’s doing such a horrific thing.
While most of the movies I’ve talked about (and will talk about over the rest of this project) have been American, this one is a British film, and as such, plays heavily on British fears. While over in the States, we were worried about the Red Menace, in England they were still licking their wounds from World War II, and this film toys with that. There’s a distinct tinge of a German accent to Mark – who himself is a blond-haired chap cast in the mold of Hitler’s perfect Aryan. Mark is twisted and shaped by his father’s experiments, turned into a monster, something that could easily be looked upon as a metaphor for the Nazi subjugation of the German people before their country went on to become a boogeyman to the rest of the world. In this case, the father begets the monster.
I’m not sure if – at any point – we’re actually supposed to be sympathetic to Mark. In fact, the scene where he forces Anna Massey’s character Helen to watch the truly disturbing films of his own childhood is the scene where Mark first starts to feel like an all-out psychopath. The record of Mark’s descent into madness isn’t about excusing him, it’s about explaining him. “We aren’t saying it wasn’t his fault, we’re just giving him a motivation.” I rather like that – at times cinema seems to waste entirely too much time trying to find ways to explain away the actions of our monsters, and some of them just don’t deserve that consideration. He’s a horribly disturbing creature, from the way he encroaches upon his victims before he kills them straight through to him transferring the light kiss Helen gives him to the lens of his camera. Helen is the sympathetic character here, a girl who takes pity on a broken bird and through it finds a sort of friendship, which breaks her heart when it collapses at the end.
This is the film where we see the core of those movies about what makes a killer. This is where we see the heart of Hannibal Lector, and it draws from the same well as Norman Bates. And speaking of Norman Bates, it’s about time. Come back tomorrow as we introduce ourselves to Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins, and Janet Leigh for one of the most acclaimed thrillers of all time. It’s time… for Psycho.